Fighting for his Eastern Shore home

Political campaigner turns grass-roots environmentalist to protect the Chesapeake Bay

May 01, 2006|By RONA KOBELL | RONA KOBELL,SUN REPORTER

WITTMAN -- Just before the sun sets over Cummings Creek, Joe Trippi ambles over to say hello to Yoda, the one-horned goat, and Mrs. Lucky, one of his favorite ducks.

He seems a world away from where he was three years ago: inhaling Diet Pepsi, stuffing his cheeks with Skoal, and trying to elect an obscure former Vermont governor as president of the United States.

These days, when Trippi's not in Italy advising Romano Prodi's campaign or in Moscow addressing the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he is here, surrounded by old-growth pines and noisy chickens, trying to safeguard the Eastern Shore's open spaces from fast- encroaching development.

For the past several months, Trippi has quietly been working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in an effort to stop the Blackwater Resort, a 3,200-home development slated to be built near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and Cambridge. He has joined the board of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, an organization dedicated to preserving the Shore's rural landscapes.

But his biggest plans are ahead of him. He wants to coordinate grass-roots gatherings and mass Internet drives in the style of the Howard Dean campaign, this time to rile the public about imminent threats to the bay. Trippi hopes to connect people who care about environmental issues, whether or not they live along the estuary and regardless of their political affiliation, and help them collaborate.

It's a different sort of cause for the inveterate campaigner, who has worked seven presidential runs. This one is not ideological, not focused around a cult of personality, and not likely to end anytime soon. It is, he says, about fighting for his home.

"No one's against development, but at some point there are developments that don't make sense," Trippi said. "And if you don't stand up to those, you might as well walk away from the Chesapeake Bay."

Trippi, 49, still advises congressional candidates, among them Democrat Kweisi Mfume, who is running for U.S. Senate in Maryland. But he seems to have settled in to life on the Eastern Shore.

In a barn on his 47-acre farm between St. Michaels and Tilghman Island, and just a few creeks away from the weekend homes of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, Trippi is restoring one of the bay's few remaining two-masted wooden bugeyes. A smaller sailboat is tied to his dock.

There are few signs of the rumpled, mile-a-minute talker who ran himself and his young staff ragged. He looks relaxed in his faded jeans, denim jacket and work shirt.

"The second I get over the Bay Bridge, this big sigh of relief happens, and I let go," Trippi said.

What's been worrying him for the past couple of years, he said, is that no one seems to be managing growth on the Eastern Shore.

"All these counties, they're just going to continue to build. People don't realize it will take them 12 hours to cross the Bay Bridge," he said. "The right hand is not talking to the left hand."

Last year, mutual acquaintances connected him to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and soon he was working for the group in its effort to stop the Blackwater development, which is to include a conference center, retail complex and golf course.

Trippi came up with the idea of an online Blackwater petition, which the Bay Foundation sent to its members. More than 12,500 people have signed the petition. Half were not members.

"We've never had so many people sign a petition or have as many people become active in a cause," said Elizabeth Buckman, the foundation's vice president for communications. Buckman said the group has hired Trippi to help with its Don't Build It blog and to liven up its Web site.

The Blackwater project has cleared most hurdles but still must be approved by the state Critical Areas Commission. Most of its members were appointed by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whose administration has shown no willingness to overturn the local government's approval. Even if the commission does not block the project, Buckman and Trippi consider their campaign a success.

"The ultimate win, obviously, would be stopping the development, but to get 12,500 people involved is a win when you look at how much attention they were able to generate," Trippi said. "If 12,500 people can muck up the works, what can 100,000 do?"

It's a question Trippi answered in January 2003 when he signed on to help Dean mount an insurgent Democratic presidential campaign. At the time, there were by his count 432 identifiable Dean supporters, a staff of seven working above a Burlington, Vt., tavern, and $100,000 in the bank.

Trippi, who had stepped out of politics in the late 1990s to work for technology companies, used a site called Meetup.com to organize gatherings for Dean supporters. Soon, the numbers grew. Many "Deaniacs" were young people angry about the war in Iraq and who felt connected to Dean, an outsider who railed against the Bush administration for entering the conflict.

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